A explosion at an arms dump that killed seven U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan was an accident, authorities and militants fighting U.S. forces said on Friday.
Thursday’s blast near the town of Ghazni was one of the worst single blows to U.S. forces hunting al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan since their intervention in late 2001.
The explosion occurred when the troops were destroying a cache of weapons dating back to the war against the Soviets in the 1980s, according to the secretary to the provincial governor.
“An American patrol was on a mission in Deh Ayen, in the Jaghatu district,” Ahmad Jawid said.
“Villagers stopped the convoy and said there was an ammunition depot. The Americans went to evacuate the ordnance, which was stored there from the time of the jihad (holy war).
“They began to destroy it. The incident happened when the person in charge of blowing it up made a mistake.”
Ghazni is about 75 miles south of Kabul.
The U.S. Central Command said in a statement the soldiers were killed when working near an ammunition dump on Thursday afternoon. But it did not say whether it was an accident or an attack.
Islamic guerrillas led by a resurgent Taliban have stepped up attacks on foreign troops and the U.S.-backed government since August. The militia claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings in Kabul this week that killed two foreign peacekeepers.
But when asked about Thursday’s deaths, Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi said the guerrillas were not responsible, although he added: “It is retribution from God. We are happy about whatever has happened in Ghazni.”
U.S. military officials in Afghanistan was not immediately available for comment.
In addition to the seven troops killed, U.S. Central Command said another U.S. soldier was missing and an interpreter was injured. Jawid said he knew of only one U.S. soldier killed.
More than 100 U.S. troops have died, most of them in accidents, since the launch of the U.S. military’s Afghan campaign, although some of the deaths occurred outside Afghanistan.
The U.S. military leads a 12,000-strong foreign force in Afghanistan hunting remnants of the Taliban regime overthrown in 2001 and their al-Qaida allies.
Guerrillas are most active in the south and east of Afghanistan, but two suicide attacks in Kabul this week killed one British and one Canadian soldier, both members of a multinational peacekeeping force in the capital.
Underlining U.S. concerns at the destabilizing effect the militants are having on Afghanistan’s reconstruction efforts, the U.S. military has announced plans for a spring offensive against the insurgents.
Vital aid operations have been suspended across much of the country because of deteriorating security, and calls for more NATO-led peacekeepers to patrol volatile areas outside the capital have so far fallen on deaf ears.
President Hamid Karzai, who has strong U.S.-backing, plans to contest the country’s first democratic elections in June, but few expect the vote to take place on time because of the security problems.
More than 500 people have been killed, many of them rebels, in the last six months in the bloodiest period since the Taliban’s ouster.